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San Diego Zoning Code: Past and Present

May 12, 2020 10:12:14 AM

Since the 20th century, San Diego’s city planning has been forward-thinking and extremely effective. From John Nolen’s 1908 plans to the 1980s tired growth management plan that encouraged infill in existing neighborhoods rather than leapfrog development, its planning has been an innovative leader of city planning. 

And in the 1990s, San Diego and Peter Calthorpe developed some of the first guidelines for greenfield transit development, focusing on development within communities with vacant land to accommodate the increasing population. 

In response, many codes and regulations were developed to deal with development of these greenfield sites, like the Urban Village Overlay Zone in the San Diego Zoning Code.

San Diego has been largely built-out and focused on redevelopment in the 21st century. The 2008 general plan adopted the “City of Villages” as its central organizational methodology, inspired by mixed-use and walkable community centers and regional transit integration. 

This plan also emphasized implementation and adoption of zoning code revisions that promoted urban villages that include townhouse zones and new street design that encourage compact development. Despite success, the San Diego Zoning staff improved its urban villages strategy, securing a technical assistance growth grant from national nonprofit Smart Growth America

So this 2008 plan drove San Diego’s village development further into what it is today, while also suggesting improvements for the city to further improve its urban development strategy. 

Smart Growth America and the San Diego 2008 Zoning plan defines a “village” as “the mixed-use heart of a community where residential, commercial, employment and civic uses are all present and integrated.” These villages will all be unique to its neighborhood, and creates a pedestrian-friendly space that’s accessible and welcoming. From parks to plazas, this village design was intended to bring people together and instill a sense of community. 

The concrete outcomes of the City planning and zoning staff defined the desirable outcomes of this project through vertical and horizontal mixed uses, innovative design and architecture, creating public places, transit accessibility, and integrating commercial, residential and public uses. 

San Diego Zoning Code and Regulations

San Diego has many zoning code provisions and regulations, and these all impact the development of urban villages. 

  • Urban Village Overlay Zone (Chapter 13, Article 2, Division 11)
  • Transit Overlay Zone (Chapter 13, Article 2, Division 10) 
  • RT (Residential Townhouse Zone) (Chapter 12, Article 1, Division 4, Sec. 131.0405 et seq.)
  • Land Development Procedures (Chapter 11, Article 2, Division 5)
  • Site Development Permit Procedures (Chapter 12, Article 6, Division 5)
  • Supplemental Neighborhood Development Permit and Site Development Permit Regulations (Chapter 14, Article 3, Division 3)
  • Planned Development Permit Procedures (Chapter 12, Article 6, Division 6)
  • Land Development Code/Land Development Manual
  • Miscellaneous Proposed Zone Amendments
  • Transit‐Oriented Development Design Guidelines
  • Street Design Manual

With so many new zoning issues and options for urban village development, the zoning code regulations and development are impacted greatly by these reforms. San Diego’s Urban Village Overlay Zone was intended to create a mixed-use land development pattern and be flexible for its residents. 

However, this innovative and forward-thinking approach has placed enormous strain and increasing attention on the San Diego zoning and regulation environment. On one hand, there’s flexibility to tailor a zone for unique use cases -- and on the other, there’s a lengthy research and planning process on the land development side that’s necessary for the proper zoning and regulatory compliance process. 

Mixed-Use (MU) and Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) zones

San Diego residential areas that use the MU and TOD projects use an Urban Village Overlay Zone intended to mix land uses in a compact and efficient manner. 

The MU/TOD zones have benefits including certainty for land developers regarding density and uses allowed, as well as the development standards for the city. If a city is rezoned for MU/TOD before development proposals, the approvals could be ministerial instead of discretionary, but if the zone district is overly detailed, it might create an inflexibility that de-incentivizes land development. 

However, planned development processes provide opportunities for tailoring zones to the specific needs of an area in exchange for a lengthier negotiation and approval process over project details. This places more burden on the zoning and regulation municipal staff, and contributes to the long wait times of the San Diego zoning approval process and land development projects in the area. 

That’s why having efficient and detailed planning is so important for high-impact projects, real estate developers, and other land use projects. Since San Diego offers a high level of flexibility and use in these overlay zones, there’s also an added constraint of complexity. It’s not always easy to find the right code or apply it properly, creating the added risk of the incorrect scope or noncompliance with regulations. 

To approach this, land development professionals must take extra time doing due diligence and ensuring that projects are compliant with the zoning requirements, adhering to regulations and contributing to the city in a productive and optimized manner.

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